Two miniseries on commercial television in recent weeks have managed to trivialize the Civil War (``North And South'') and the capitalist system (``Kane & Abel''). Now, in Mussolini: The Untold Story (NBC, Sunday 8-11 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday, 9-11 p.m.) TV has found a topic worthy of its trivialization. The reason for the current plethora of miniseries, by the way, is the fact that November is a ``sweeps'' period -- a quarterly period when future advertising rates are set, based upon viewership. Networks have discovered that almost any miniseries is a reasonably sure ratings-grabber.
Oscar and Emmy Award-winner George C. Scott, who seldom makes a mistake in his choice of roles, has made a mistake in this one. Based on a linguine-thin script by co-producer Sterling Silliphant, directed with ponderous pomposity by director William A. Graham, ``Mussolini'' is pure spaghetti-opera. It reenacts a fascinating period in Italian history -- from 1922 through 1945 -- as a mere backdrop for a shaven head, family feuds, and several consuming passions. Mussolini, in life a ruthless dictator who invented Fascism and who led his nation astray in many ways, emerges as a trivial tragicomic figure.
Scott does his Il Duce routine the easy way -- it is all posing, preening, posturing, and prancing. Lee Grant, who also usually makes impeccable acting choices, has unfortunately chosen the seemingly interesting role of Rachele sp?Mussolini, the peasant wife of Benito. But, alas, Miss Grant plays her like a Jewish mother, merely substituting gnocchi for bagels.
Scriptwriter Silliphant deals quickly and simplistically with the politics of the matter -- he makes certain you know right off that the trains run on time.
Mussolini hasn't fared very well on television this season. Earlier this year HBO managed to present an even worse version of his story, with Anthony Hopkins shaving his head for posterity. Maybe the reality of the Mussolini story is just too unbelievable to withstand further trashing by miniseries television.